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The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010)

by Edmund de Waal

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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As someone who is into their genealogy, yet from a family of people who barely left their mark on the world, I found this book fascinating. It covers art history, the holocaust, how Jews had their works of art stolen and how the dispersed families managed to fit in their new countries, de Waal pays a great tribute to his ancestors: it is the kind of book I'd love to write about my ancestors. ( )
  martensgirl | Mar 3, 2015 |
When Edmund de Waal inherited a priceless collection of 264 netsukes—japanese miniatures made from ivory depicting animals and scenes of everyday life—from his great uncle, Iggie, who told him how he had played with them as a child in his mother's dressing room with his siblings, the author decided to set aside his own work as a world-renowned potter and curator to travel to the places which would help him uncover the rich family history from which he descends, and of which the netsukes were the only memento of the dynasty which were the vastly wealthy Jewish Ephrussi family, rich grain merchants originally from Odessa who had become powerful bankers in Europe and who were peers to the Rothschild family, only to lose everything to the Nazis.

His tale is a sweeping saga, which starts in the 19th century with the magnetic Charles Ephrussi, the original collector of the netsukes, an art collector and patron who admired and promoted the impressionists when they were still considered as radicals, and who purchased some 40 works by Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, and Pissarro, among others, and became part-owner and then editor and contributor to the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, the most important art historical periodical in France. As such, he was a welcome guest at some of the most famous salons in Paris and is known to be one of the inspirations for the figure of Swann in Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time). He also appears in Le déjeuner des canotiers (Luncheon of the Boating Party) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir as the figure seen from the back wearing a hat. But things abruptly changed with the Dreyfus affair in 1894, when the French took sides and anti-semitism became widespread. Suddenly, many old friends were lost and became sworn enemies.

De Waal continues the family history, following the path of the nestukes, who came into the hands of Charles's niece as a wedding present. Iggie's mother and the author's great grandmother was a great one for going to the opera and dinner parties wearing fashionable gorgeous dresses with perfectly matched hats and gloves, which her maid Anna always knew how to help her choose and bring off with the perfect piece of jewelry, and always, as she dressed, the children were allowed to play on the yellow rug with the priceless collection of tiny netsuke she kept in the cabinet placed in her dressing room which uncle Charles had given her. The First World War had been hard enough to get through, but then the Nazis came into power and for all of them, the enchanted world at the Palais Ephrussi was shattered forever, as they were turned out of their living quarters and their possessions taken over by the Reich, and the horrors of the holocaust forced them to flee in all directions. I rarely cry when reading a book, but I cried when Anna, after the war is over, reveals to Elizabeth, the author's grandmother, how it is she managed to smuggle the netsuke figures one by one from under the Natzi's very noses in safekeeping as a valuable memento she could salvage for the family for which she had worked all her life. ( )
8 vote Smiler69 | Feb 26, 2015 |
This book follows the life of a set of Japanese netsuke (miniature sculptures). Although it sounds as though it might be dull, it is actually very interesting, because it also follows the fortunes of a great family of merchants, beginning in Odessa, through Paris, Vienna and then back to Japan, focussing in turn on the lives of each custodian of the netsuke, and providing a fascinating picture of life for the prosperous (and later of Jews during the Second World War) in each of the great cities at the relevant time. Despite my expectations (I ended up with the book quite by accident), it held my interest to the end. ( )
  kmstock | Jan 31, 2015 |
The Hare with Amber Eyes is a biography of the author's family, taking the opportunity to trace the history of a collection of netsuke that he has inherited from his uncle. It is a fascinating story, moving from England to Paris, Vienna and Tokyo, with time also spent exploring family history in Russia, Slovakia and Ukraine. If your European history is a little shaky, this will put two World Wars, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Impressionist Age of Paris into context for you. If you like antiques, you will enjoy the background to the Japanese carvings and many other collectibles.

I was attracted to the book through the idea of tracing the history of a piece of family memorabilia. I've been learning more about my own father's activities in his youth through transcribing his memoirs, and I find the stories that our forebears have hidden from us, not necessarily deliberately, to shed more light on who I am and why I react to things the way I do. It is the reason why we are fascinated by programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are? and My Father The War Hero. So although this is an adult book, it will be suitable for teens with an interest in history or sociology or family. The more so, I think, because history we get is usually about wars and politics - this shows the impact on the people living through those times. In this case rich people, but also Jews that had aimed to be part of their country, not part of a clique. It answered questions I had about the Holocaust since I was a teenager. With apologies to my Jewish readers, I didn't understand why people let themselves be rounded up. I wondered what I would have done in such a situation. When I first saw Schindler's List I recognised the girl, the architect, who was shot for telling the camp commandant things were being done wrong (correctly) as the sort of fate I might have suffered at that age. Now, with the insight from this book, I know I might have been lucky to have left everything in time, but it is equally likely that I would have clung on in hope.

But this is the third quarter of the story. We start in light and hope in Paris, with a newly Parisianised Ephrussi family, eager to be part of the social whirl. The Japanese netsuke are collected along with other items in their patronage of the arts. They sponsor painters like Monet and Renoir. The artist paints them into the picture (the Bathing Party) in gratitude. I always wondered why the gentleman all wrapped up in his overcoat and top-hat was there, looking so out of place! It is Charles Ephrussi - immortalised in oils. The scene shifts to Vienna when the netsuke collection is given to Viktor and Emmy as a wedding present. The netsuke become private playthings (well-supervised) rather than publicly admired artworks. The fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the effect on the inhabitants of Vienna, the growing hatred of Jews, especially rich ones, and the rise of Hitler are all documented, as the netsuke sit safely in their large house off the Ringstrasse. Suddenly it is no longer safe: Hitler annexes Austria, the Jews are stripped of their assets, and nothing is said of the netsuke among the cataloguing of the paintings, the silver, the bone china, the furniture, the library. Viktor and Emmy are extricated from the city and Viktor, now widowed, reaches safety in England.

The author knows the netsuke are not lost. [spoiler alert] Through all of the sadness and horror of the wars it is the discovery of just how they escaped that brings tears to my eyes. The kindness of a servant. I don't know why this should affect me more than the horrors inflicted on people. I think because someone shows kindess and care through all of the disturbances, and that kindness results in a tangible link through a family history that Edmund de Waal so engagingly invites us to share.

The section on the transfer to post-war (occupied) Japan is equally fascinating - and eye-opening. It is easy in these times of recession to blame everyone for our ills, and complain we should turn the clock back. But where to? This book raises some complicated issues for those willing to think about them. But I think I would bore my readers if I continued to talk about them. It has stirred in me an interest in netsuke, though. I've only seen them on antiques programmes on television, but they sound like uniquely touchable, handleable, and engrossing pieces of folk art.

This is one of those rare occasions when I understand the desire to give something 10 stars out of 5. Buy this book. I'm keeping mine. ( )
  Jemima_Pett | Nov 11, 2014 |
Recommended by Chris Wyndham
  decore | Sep 6, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 84 (next | show all)
What happened to the hare with amber eyes, and the carved medlar that almost felt as if it might squish when handled, after their return from Japan? De Waal bought them a secondhand vitrine from the V&A and set it up in his London house, its door unlocked so his own children could play with its contents. "Objects have always been . . . stolen, retrieved and lost. It is how you tell their stories that matters." He has told their story wonderfully. Oh, and this is a beautiful and unusual book, as a physical object. Somebody really cared.

» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Edmund de Waalprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Boraso, MarinaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Cohen, MarceloTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Eklöf, MargaretaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hilzensauer, BrigitteTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Johnová, LucieTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lempens, WillekeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Miró, CarlesTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Prosperi, CarloTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rugstad, ChristianTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sasada, MasakoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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'Even when one is no longer attached to things, it's still something to have been attached to them; because it was always for reasons which other people didn't grasp...Well, now that I'm a little too weary to live with other people, these old feelings, so personal and individual, that I had in the past, seem to me - it's a mania for all collectors - very precious. I open my heart to myself like a sort of vitrine, and examine one by one all those love affairs of which the world can know nothing. And of this collection to which I'm now much more attached than to my others, I say to myself, rather as Mazarin said of his books, but in fact without the least distress, that it will be very tiresome to have to leave it at all.'
Charles Swann.

Marcel Proust, 'Cities of the Plain'.
For Ben, Matthew and Anna
and for my father.
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In 1991 I was given a two-year scholarship by a Japanese foundation.
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Book description

Paris 1871-1899 -- Vienna 1899-1938 -- Vienna Kövecses, Tunbridge Wells, Vienna 1938-1947 -- Tokyo 1947-2001 -- Tokyo, Odessa, London 2001-2009.
Haiku summary
Mansions, power, art / Exile, stolen dignity / Netsuke bear witness (LynnB)

Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0312569378, Paperback)

Amazon Best of the Month, September 2010: At the heart of Edmund de Waal's strange and graceful family memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes, is a one-of-a-kind inherited collection of ornamental Japanese carvings known as netsuke. The netsuke are tiny and tactile--they sit in the palm of your hand--and de Waal is drawn to them as "small, tough explosions of exactitude." He's also drawn to the story behind them, and for years he put aside his own work as a world-renowned potter and curator to uncover the rich and tragic family history of which the carvings are one of the few concrete legacies. De Waal's family was the Ephrussis, wealthy Jewish grain traders who branched out from Russia across the capitals of Europe before seeing their empire destroyed by the Nazis. Beginning with his art connoisseur ancestor Charles (a model for Proust's Swann), who acquired the netsuke during the European rage for Japonisme, de Waal traces the collection from Japan to Europe--where they were saved from the brutal bureaucracy of the Nazi Anschluss in the pockets of a family servant--and back to Japan and Europe again. Throughout, he writes with a tough, funny, and elegant attention to detail and personality that does full justice to the exactitude of the little carvings that first roused his curiosity. --Tom Nissley

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:42:51 -0400)

(see all 7 descriptions)

Traces the parallel stories of nineteenth-century art patron Charles Ephrussi and his unique collection of 360 miniature netsuke Japanese ivory carvings, documenting Ephrussi's relationship with Marcel Proust and the impact of the Holocaust on his cosmopolitan family.… (more)

» see all 9 descriptions

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